Experimental Theatre at the National Theater, Taipei
November 16, 2017
Gu Jiani (古佳妮), founder of Untitled Group (十口無團), is also a painter. That’s very obvious from the image that greets the audience as they walk in to Exit (插銷). With its solid tonal grey walls back and right, her and He Zheng’s set (何崢) looks like a dusty warehouse. White pillows are piled up here and there, looking for all the world like sacks of rice. A man occasionally walks around and stands and looks. Contemplating what, we don’t know. But why is a pair of legs sticking out of one of those piles?
When the dancer, who turns out to be Gu, extracts herself and gets dressed, she rearranges the pile like someone neatly making a bed. Not that there’s much point as it’s destroyed again within a few seconds of the lights going down. It’s just one of several times in Exit that something is arranged or constructed, only for it to be demolished again. It’s a neat way to explore and reflect the internal and external struggle between conflict and acceptance that is referred to in the programme note.
It kicks off proper to the sound of an alarm and a jet engine starting up. It’s loud as is most of the other hums, bangs, crashes and much more of LOGA’s sound design, which while not quite blasting the audience into next week but does make the seats vibrate. Gu trained in both ballet and classical Chinese dance, but has since gone her own way. What follows is a lot of running around, tossing around of those pillows like a game of supercharged pass-the-parcel, some neat partnerwork, and some action with a ladder. It’s hardly unique but its athletic, energetic and well done by Gu and fellow dancers, Lei Yan (雷琰) and Wang Yuan-qi (王宣淇).
The partner-work features a lot of supporting of the back of the head and neck, and being turned from the shoulders. Sometimes it felt like it was exclusively so. When all three dancers get involved it becomes highly complex. It’s fast and startlingly precise but, maybe because of the latter, lacks much sense of danger. Indeed, there were moments when I wondered if the dancer being supported was actually giving any weight. There was certainly more than one occasion when they anticipated the impulse that was supposed to make them move or recover.
Back to being painterly, Gu presents more striking images, including when two dancers pause for several minutes in headstands, their legs spread crookedly like the branches of a dead tree. It’s one of the quieter moments in the piece, which for all the action, and as is so often the way, are the most effective. The shadows cast by Goh Boon Ann’s lighting magnify the effect. I just wish he didn’t feel the need to resort to strobe lighting, at one point for a long time. It’s an effect so beloved and so overused by many Asian lighting designers right now, but that can cause problems for some audience members, and that is anyway often so unnecessary, as here.
That legs in the air image does cover one of several tidying-ups of the stage, though. Another comes earlier when, pillows having thrown everywhere in the manic opening, we are treated to several minutes of not much while they are neatly restacked. While getting the point, it does feel like filler.
Much of the last twenty minutes or so is taken up using a ladder. It certainly tosses in an interesting new element, but it comes from nowhere and at times it feels a bit like we’re heading towards circus acrobatics, especially when they get into balancing and the set up gets obvious. The original idea of conflict and acceptance is much harder to see here. It’s also a shame that the pillows play so little part. The lack of much obvious link to what goes before (the pillows play little part) means it all feels very separate, especially as it’s never really all pulled back together.
Whether Exit really provokes the fundamental questions, “Where is the exit really? Or, should we re-examine our original desires?”, as stated in the programme, is probably a step too far. While it may have been better left at forty minutes or so, there is nonetheless a lot to admire here. The performers and designs are excellent, and it’s another sign that there is some interesting and more innovative contemporary work coming out of China these days.